In war, someone always benefits

Observation #2: In war, there’s always someone on all sides who benefits.

In politics, they say “Follow the money.” In analyzing a conflict, the concept is similar: look for who benefits. There’s almost always some group or person that benefits from the conflict— and they have a vested interest in keeping the fighting going.

Once again, Sri Lanka is a good example. On the one hand, the LTTE was founded by and is primarily supported by low caste Tamils who are a minority within the Sri Lankan Tamil community. They are fighting not only against the Sinhala-dominated government, but against the Tamil elite that used to hold power among the Tamils. Since the LTTE represents a minority even within its own ethnic community, it would have great difficulty in winning a (peaceful and fair) democratic election. So, it has a vested interest in avoiding that eventuality.

On the Sinhala side, the major political division is between the traditional ruling class of village headmen, and the new merchant class that arose under British rule. Two groups of elites claim to represent these two major groups. Each of these elite leaderships has used the war to try to claim more power for itself. (One of Chandrika’s electoral promises in 1994 was to abolish the office of Executive President because it was too powerful and prone to abuse. Once in that office, she suddenly decided that abolishing it didn’t seem like such a good idea.)

But there is another group that has used the war to its advantage: the JVP, a so-called Marxist-Buddhist party that in reality has little to do with either Marxism or Buddhism. JVP represents mainly the interests of the poor Sinhalese in the South, where little development money has gone. They have used the war as a focus to bring a Sinhala chauvinist view from a small segment of the Sinhala lower class population into mainstream politics, advancing from a banned party in 1989 to a partner in government in 2004. For a fringe group like JVP to become one of the most powerful parties in Sri Lanka was quite a feat, and if the war ended, JVP would lose a major political advantage.

In my travels through the countryside in Sri Lanka, Sinhala and Tamil people, especially those on conflict areas, have both told me, “We don’t want to fight.” Yet when so many powerful people would stand to lose their power if the war ended, it’s no wonder the Sri Lanka conflict has been so difficult to diffuse.

This principle holds true in most conflicts around the world: someone on both sides has a vested interest in not ending the war. To fully understand a conflict, it’s essential to identify who gains from the violence and what exactly they gain.